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Visiting Our Vineyards


Date Night Dining in Wine Country By Bill and Christine Dull We live in the Temecula Valley, in the heart of an incredible tourist

destination filled with wineries, golf courses, spas, and casinos. People travel here from all over the world to experience the resort-like feel of Wine Country. Yet many of us locals never venture out of our everyday existence to take advantage of what’s in our own backyard. We’re just as guilty of this, so we’re going to try to rectify it: over the next several months, we’ll be focusing our Date Night Dining on restaurants in Temecula Wine Country, highlighting the culinary experiences that will hopefully encourage you to venture out of the city to enjoy the Valley like a tourist.

Meritage at Callaway As we headed out on the Temecula Wine Trail, we decided to stop first

at one of the Valley’s oldest wineries, Callaway, and its restaurant, Meritage. With terraced tables on an enclosed, covered patio, the restaurant is nestled among the vines and facing west, providing incredible sunset views over the vineyards. It’s an atmosphere of comfortable, casual elegance, focusing on the natural beauty of the vineyards. Small touches like simple roses on every table add a tasteful splash of color against the black stone tabletops. We had visited Meritage and interviewed Chef Michael Henry back in 2009 when the restaurant had been open just over a year. Four years later

and Chef Mike seems to have hit his stride, really enjoying his freedom to create and prepare all the diverse dishes on the menu. “We’re on a good clip now. We try to maintain a high standard,” he says. “You have this thing in your head that you want to execute. Now I’m at this point where I have a lot of freedom so it’s great. I think that reflects on what I can do. I’m able to have more creativity.

I enjoy changing the menu; it’s the thing that keeps

you fired up.” Chef Mike has been influenced by a wide array of cooking experience

all over the world, and that diversity is reflected in the menu. He honed his craft in places as varied as the Jersey Shore as a grill cook, Central and South America (where he met and married his Peruvian wife), and the Mission Inn in Riverside where he served as Chef de Cuisine. At Meritage, he designs creative seasonal menus and daily blackboard specials featuring an exten- sive selection of tapas, salads, sandwiches, and entrees. According to Chef Mike, one of the keys to what he does is his choice of fresh, local ingredients. “As artisans we take the time to source stuff out and find the best products,” he says. “We try to get things locally, local beef and produce, as sustainable as possible. Organic fruits and vegetables and chicken. Being able to in- corporate that into my cooking is part of what makes this a dream job. And I think it shows in the food we present.” To start off our dining experience, Chef Mike brought out the Tempura

Atlantic Calamari from the Tapas menu. The calamari were fresh and tender, lightly breaded with seasoning enough to be delicious on their own, but dip- ping them into the accompanying carrot/ginger aioli made the flavors just explode. To complement the Calamari, we tried classes of the Callaway Winemaker’s Reserve Bella Blanc Sparkling Wine. One of the things we liked about the Mer- itage menu is that every item is listed with a suggested pairing of a glass or taste of Callaway wine. Dining at a winery is the perfect time to try a food and wine pairing to see how good food and wine comple- ment and enhance each other. In the case of the Bella Blanc, we liked the sparkling wine on its own, but we especially enjoyed the way it be- came more complex as it worked with the spice of the aioli. Next came the Salad course.

The Twice Cooked Pork Belly with Organic Spinach was tossed with a pomegranate vinaigrette that was tart enough to cut the richness of the pork belly, but light enough that it kept the spinach from being soggy and overpowered. Mixed with juliennes of roasted carrot and shaved fennel, the salad was a deli- cious blend of veggies interspersed

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